10 Ways Online Fashion Retailers Can Work with Fashion Designers and Build a Great Supplier Base

fashion designers

This post is for start-up retailers whose business model requires working with Fashion Designers as their suppliers. You can apply these industry proven practices to improve relationships with your suppliers and improve your overall business profitability.

We all know how fashion designers operate:

  • Fashion Designers create sketches
  • They buy enough material to create a sample of the design
  • They put the sample piece in front of buyers, such as you (Online retailers, boutique owners, etc) in trade shows, fashion shows etc.
  • Once they get enough POs, they will go ahead, buy raw material in bulk and produce the garment as per the orders recieved.
  • Retailers buy the product and hopefully customers buy them as well.

But working with fashion designers is not always a straightforward task for retailers. In fact, it requires some serious management skills. The reason being that these designers are creative people, who have mostly operated in a fragmented market and many don’t have experience working with online retailers and are not aware about the requirements of an e-commerce business.

You as an Online Fashion retailer must treat fashion designers or suppliers as your growth partners and build a strong seller network.  These suppliers play an important role in your company’s success and play an important role in smooth operation and profitability of your business. This ensures a constant flow of new new products that fit your brand’s image.

Please note that I am not talking about the mainstream designers, whose products you can see in shopping window and websites of bigger retailers. We’re talking about DIY designers and those extremely creative people who supply products to Small brick and mortar boutiques.

Now let’s talk about some best industry practices for online retailers working with fashion designers.

1) Keep reaching out new Designers

If you’re an established retailer, you are contacted by new designers everyday. However, on the other hand if you’re a start-up retailer, you will have to work towards developing your own network of designers. The easiest way to find new designers is to go to online marketplaces like ETSY and Storenvy. On such platforms, you can find many small to mid sized vendors for your store , who not only match your brand image but can offer you great deal in terms of price and delivery.

While finding sellers on ETSY is more convenient but going to physical markets and meeting sellers Face to Face in the physical market places in your city  results stories & content. Thus if you’re a start-up, you may consider taking a mixed approach by reaching our designers both in the online as well as the offline space.

[quote]Please note that not all of sellers on ETSY have the capacity to handle bigger orders. Fortunately, on Oct 1, 2013, ETSY allowed sellers who take outside help for manufacturing. This is great because now you can find more sellers in ETSY.COM who have capacity to take bigger orders.[/quote]

2) Help designers in building their portfolio

Fashion designers are not always optimized for e-commerce. I mean they are great creators and not essentially the best marketers of their own creations on the Internet. This is where they need your help and you as a retailer should do whatever it takes to help them make their products look great.  You bear the responsibility to create the content that’s required to make their creations look larger than life:

  • Product Photography: They will only give you products to sell and you as a retailer are expected to work on presenting the product in the best possible manner. You need access to a nice photography studio where you can take professional pictures of their work. Your suppliers should look at you as someone who can bring their products or perhaps their entire portfolio to life.
  • Product Descriptions: Product descriptions are extremely important part of how your customers perceive the products being sold on your website. It’s important that you get all the necessary information from the designer about the products and describe it to the world outside in the form of a beautiful story.

3) Require discipline

You’re investing in promoting the products of these fashion designers; you must ensure that they’re disciplined or perhaps you must communicate your expectations clearly about quality, accuracy and timeliness of your orders placed. In a way, you have to nurture your supplier base and build a sense of discipline in them by making them understand the entire value chain of your business, so that you can get timely deliveries of inventory to your warehouse.

4) Support them

Building stronger relationships with your best suppliers should be an important part of your overall business strategy which includes even working within their limitations. You as retailer must spend time with your suppliers to discover and understand their goals and work out strategies to increase the mutual gains of the association.

  • Have realistic time expectations: When a customer knows that they have ordered custom garment from a designer, they are ready to wait, in some situations for even a month. So, if your designer needs little extra time and you know that customer is ready to wait, don’t put unnecessary pressure on them as it can create quality issues and increase return rates.
  • Don’t press them too much for discounts: If the supplier won’t budge on price, focus instead on other areas, such as the amount of the down payment, the time period and scope of the warranty, bulk purchase discount, and other areas of that may provide even better benefits to you.
  • Be generous with Upfront payments for the best designers: If the designer has  a great selling record but doesn’t have sufficient funding to fulfill a bigger order from you, don’t hesitate in paying bigger amount up-front (50 to 70 percent). The good part is the higher you go, the more you can negotiate on the overall rate because most  suppliers are extremely concerned about getting paid. Addressing their payment concern upfront gives them an impression that you are easy to work with and they become more cooperative with you.
  • Help them find manufacturers: If you come across start-up designers, who can produce great designs but do not have a good manufacturer to produce their designs in bulk, you must offer them help them in finding manufacturers from your own network so that they can scale-up quickly to fulfill your order on time.

5) Keep the firstbuy small

If you find a good vendor who is offering you great designs, quality & price, don’t place a big order without getting the opinion of your customers. First place a small order and put them on your website to see how quickly they get sold out. Moreover, as a start-up, you don’t have to start with a big inventory. Start by selling few items. Starting small gives you a chance learn and master the art of presenting the work of the designers on your website. If a product is a hit, you can contact your vendor to know if they have enough material to handle a bigger re-order and ask vendor to deliver before the product goes out of stock. This can help you keep check of dead stock as you know that it WILL sell for sure.

6) Give them all the data they need

One of the the most important questions in any business, especially fashion is – what do customers want? Not only it’s an important question for you, but also your suppliers – the people who are designing and manufacturing your products. You see, designers are emotional about their work. They love their creations but it doesn’t always mean that it will sell.

So you should make an effort to collect data from your customers about their experience using the creations of your designers and share it with them openly. They must know which ages bought the product, what sizes and colors sell the most, were there any complains etc. This will help them come-up with a more targeted inventory for your online store, which means you can expect to deal with less un-sold stock in the next season. Few basic examples  of data collection are:

  • Direct feedback: You can enable mini survey tools like Qualaroo on the product page and ask question from visitors about the product’s perceived value.
  • Product Reviews: Reach out the customers and ask them to come back and leave reviews about their purchase. Design your message in a way that customers give you data about the product’s size, fitting, feel, value for money etc.

7) Co-promote with them

Many fashion designers usually maintain their own blog and social media presence. You as retailer must look to leverage their presence. When you launch their line, encourage them to promote the launch on their blog and social media accounts. Feel free to engage with them from your own social media accounts. It helps you strengthen your relationship with your suppliers as they start seeing you as their growth partners.

8) Give them a profile page on your website

Smaller fashion designers need recognition for their work. If you’re working with multiple suppliers, you can consider giving them an independent brand page, that also works as their work portfolio and help your customers know the maker of the garment more closely. For reference, you may checkout how ModCloth gives a profile page to all their designers.

9) Include an ‘exclusivity’ clause in the agreement

It hurts your brand if what you’re selling is also available on other websites or a local mall of your customers. The products you’re selling need to be unique to your store or else you have to be ready to take-on the price war with your competitors – it’s a lose-lose battle. Comparison shopping engines have made it easier for customers to compare prices; you may want to stay away from this never-ending battle as far as possible. Thus, make sure you have a clause of exclusivity with your vendors so that what you’re selling is exclusive to your store.

10) Be good at communication

Always maintain a solid communication with your suppliers.By being attentive and responsive to issues, you as retailer can build a great rapport with your suppliers.

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Your thoughts?
While I do believe that these practices can be help Online Fashion Retailers nurture an amazing supplier base for their Online Store, I am sure this list is not exhaustive. From your experience, if you have any tips that you think may be helpful for others, please feel free to share with us in the comment section below or tweet at @ilovefashionret.

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